Back (Black Backpack)

I think it was the day we were flying out that I bought the black backpack for our New Zealand trip. I had just realized how ill equipped I was for our outdoor plans, and rushed to Soho to buy a windcheater and the backpack for our days of hiking and kayaking. It’s made an excellent travel bag: just the right number of pockets, just the right size to shove under an airplane seat.

When I started chemo in April, it became my hospital bag. Over the last few months, it has been filled with playing cards, three types of green tea, an embroidery kit, a bright pair of socks (replenished with a clean pair each week), and whatever book I might currently be reading.

I unpacked it a few weeks ago after my last set of results. I wasn’t confident enough to totally disperse the contents – I repacked those in an old tote bag, and hung it in the junk closet. But it seemed possible in that moment that it might become my hiking and travel bag again, ready to be filled with airline-approved toiletries, sunscreen, bug spray, squashed peanut butter sandwiches.

I was ready for a break from being sick. Ready for plans other than hospital appointments. My husband and I started talking about where we might go – Portugal, Sicily, Azerbaijan. We took a weekend trip down to DC to see the Obama portraits and space shuttles; hear about octopuses and jellyfish at the Library of Congress Book Festival; eat Afghan dumplings, Ethiopian raw meat, and pastries made with heritage grains.

However, it turned out that my black backpack would only have a short break from its role as hospital bag. After giving ourselves a week or so to process the good results, we had another conversation with the oncologist. There was, indeed, a chance that the latest scan was only showing scarring. But the greater chance was that I still had cancer in my system. There wasn’t an obvious treatment plan, but the most sensible decision would be to continue with an extra two cycles – five more weeks – of chemotherapy. We would push my body beyond the maximum treatment regime to try and get my scans clear, to attempt to get rid of as much of the cancer as possible.

We had expected that the additional treatment would be a hard path, physically. So far, it has been. My blood tests are getting more unpredictable. I’ve been in hospital three times this week alone, and had numerous visits for blood transfusions, injections, hydration.

But I was unprepared for how hard this path would be psychologically. I agree with my doctor that more chemo is the right decision. But I do not want to be sick anymore. I do not want to be tired and nauseous each week. I want to have energy. I want my life plans to be more than a schedule of hospital visits.

I think of the myth of Sisyphus. I think of Groundhog Day. I think of the word stamina. I imagine coming back from a long day of hiking, only to realize that the subway is not running and I have no money in my pockets. Already exhausted legs carry me through the streets of New York, and I’m too tired to ignore the puddles of brown water in the gutters, the gray of the sidewalks, the brain-filling howl of sirens. The right metaphor is not walking uphill, which we can do under the sky and among the trees. Just an exhausted trudge along a hard path when we had been nurturing hope of rest.

It helps to remember that I don’t live in metaphors. I live in the real world. And this morning I walked under the sky and among the trees. The air was crisp, and the clouds high. There were ducks at the tiny yellow sand beach, and red mushrooms had pushed up through the wood chips. They reminded me of puhpowee, a word I had only just learned that means “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”  I don’t live in metaphors. Out of the black, emergence is still possible.

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